There is a whole canon of books being categorized as „unfilmable“ – for whatsoever reason. Every now and then though, fearless filmmakers prove the advocates of this theory wrong by delivering great examples of falsification. The list includes masterpieces like “Catch 22”, “Naked Lunch”, “Requiem for a Dream” or “Trainspotting”, based on Irvine Welsh’s acclaimed novel of the same name. With “Filth”, writer-director Jon S. Baird took to another book by Scotland’s only true post-modernist and reduced the canon of allegedly unfilmable literature by yet another title. With us he talked about the specific challenges of his adaption, lead actor James McAvoy, 99 red balloons and the high quality of German football.
screen/read: When I first heard about „Filth“ being turned into a movie I thought it would be pretty much impossible. Did you read the novel with an adaption in mind already or was that a longer process?
Jon S. Baird: I read the novel first when it came out in 1998 and I wasn’t even working in the film industry then. I had just left university and working in the film industry at that point in my life seemed like a distant dream. So I didn’t read the book for that sort of a reason. It was only ten years later when I had read it three or four times and I bumped into Irvine through a friend of mine. It became more of a realistic proposal then. But when I got the option to do it I thought that I’ve got to give everything because it was one of my favorite books ever.
screen/read: So basically you grew up with “Trainspotting” to a certain degree, which has always been considered the archetype Welsh adaption until now. Was that an influence on how to approach “Filth” cinematically?
Jon S. Baird: I tried to put “Trainspotting” out of my mind. I mean, I love that film but “Filth” was my first book of Irvine and it was always my Irvine Welsh thing. I think I just wanted to concentrate on my own approach and not be too destracted by anything else. I just tried to put everything into “Filth” and ignore anything else going around.
screen/read: Did you relate to Bruce instantly? I mean, it’s not the sort of character one would identify easily with.
Jon S. Baird: That’s a very good question. I think that the way the film is getting received shows that everyone can relate to something in its story. To me it’s about lost love, it’s a romantic love story, and it’s about someone going wrong. We’ve all gone wrong in our lives at some point and that is something everyone can relate to. When I first read “Filth” I was in quite a dark period of my life. Things were kind of going wrong for me. So I think I had the benefit of having that in mind when I first met Bruce. I could relate to not necessarly him but certainly some of the things that were part of his story. I think when Irvine was writing the book he had slightly become that character in a weird way and so with the film we had to change things because whatever material you are working with you have to somehow relate to it in your own way. You certainly don’t want to become someone like Bruce but you need to be able to understand him. I think that’s the key.
screen/read: Was it difficult to let the character go and hand it over to an actor or to think of an actor at all?
Jon S. Baird: Yeah, that was the main thing. Once we got James McAvoy everything changed. We worked very closely together and with the rest of the actors, so it was a very confident situation after we got him. Finding Bruce was obviously tough because I wanted him to be Scottish and very authentic and then you’re kind of limited by who can get your film made and who can do it justice. So that was a tricky part. But it’s like passing the baton on. First Irvine had to find someone he could trust to adapt the book, an then it was me finding someone to trust, and then when we made the film, myself and James had to to trust the studio to distribute and sell it the way we wished.
screen/read: What was it that convinced you that James McAvoy was the right one to portray Bruce?
Jon S. Baird: Actually when we met him first he was nothing like what we were expecting him to be. We thought of a charming middle-class guy, just because of the roles he played before. I didn’t know much about his background. But when we started talking I knew instantly that he was getting the character and that he was the right guy. I learned about his tough upbringing and that he had an understanding of mental illness. I think we met him at 10 o’clock in the morning and by 2 o’clock in the afternoon we had offered him the part.
screen/read: What would you say was the biggest challenge in bringing the book to the screen?
Jon S. Baird: I think getting the total balance right because there is a lot going on. Irvine is such an amazing writer, he gives you amazing characters and dialogue. What he doesn’t always give you is a clear narrative though. And I think that was the biggest challenge, finding a narrative that was going to drive the whole thing. And then we had to find out how to deal with the tapeworm which is an important part of the book. Those were the two big challenges of the adaptation. In terms of getting the financing that was a huge challenge too. But that’s also a different conversation.
screen/read: It’s partly a German/British co-production now. Was that the reason to decide to go to Hamburg?
Jon S. Baird: Oh, it was entirely that reason because we were getting money from Germany and obviously when you do that you shoot in that country. We also got money from Sweden and Belgium, so we went to shoot in those countries too. We thought that we could use Germany for our sequence that was supposed to be Amsterdam in the book. The Reeperbahn and the red light district in Hamburg was on obvious choice for that. And although it wasn’t a creative decision in the beginning it turned out to be even better than going to Amsterdam because everybody does that for a sequence like this one. I also was really impressed by the German crew that we had. They were totally efficient and accomodating and it just made our life so much easier. They understood our film and it was fantastic how they got behind it. Also I experienced what an incredible sense of humour they have which is something that is pretty much denied in that sort of rivalry between the English and the Germans.
screen/read: I think the main rivalry between Germany and England is football.
Jon S. Baird: No, because the Germans are ten times better than England so there’s no rivalry anymore.
screen/read: Better not let the English hear that.
Jon S. Baird: I won’t. Scotland is so bad at football, they will laugh at me anyway when I say that [laughs].
screen/read: The whole Hamburg sequence is really hilarious, it’s one of the funniest in the whole movie to me. It was great to see James and Eddie (Marsan) enter the “Ritze” which is so famous here.
Jon S. Baird: Yes, that’s a big sort of bar where people go before the football, right?
screen/read: Well, erm, sort of.
Jon S. Baird: We’re also using the Nena song “99 Red Balloons”. We wanted to include the German version as well because we thought that would be more authentic. So we really loved that part of the film.
screen/read: I wonder what Nena says to that.
Jon S. Baird: I hope she comes to the premiere and does a live set of the song. That would be a big thing [laughs].
screen/read: As far as I can see Irvine is a big fan of the movie. Did you collaborate with him when conceiving the movie or did you just present the finished film to him?
Jon S. Baird: Well, he gave me the book and I didn’t show him the screenplay until it was ready. He was very happy with it, put his name to the project and was very supportive. He came on set for one day and did a cameo role in the film which we unfortunately had to cut out because it didn’t work. But apart from that he didn’t see the film before it was finished, he didn’t see any rough cut or anything. I thought it was a gamble to do so but that was the way he wanted to do it and it was the way I wanted to do it. So thankfully he liked our film.
screen/read: Apart from “Filth”, let’s talk a little bit about how you got into filmmaking in general.
Jon S. Baird: I started out as a runner at the BBC, making people tea and driving them around. I walked my way up from there, got into the comedy department as a junior director and then did a short film which was discovered by Lexi Alexander, a German director who then wanted me to work on her film “Green Street”. I became an associate producer on that and finally made my first feature in 2008. So I’ve been working in the film industry since 1998. It’s been a long route to get here.
screen/read: Any further projects in sight?
Jon S. Baird: Yeah, I’m writing two things at the moment. I can’t say exactly what. One of them is a comedy based on a novel. I’ll just have to see which one goes first.
[Thanks so much to Jon S. Baird for taking the time despite a tight schedule and to Aimee Hall of Freuds to make this possible without any hesitation]
[Images: Screencapture (Jon S. Baird) / Ascot Elite (Stills)]